Fungus farming may soon have its day in the sun
Truffles aside, mushrooms don’t really get the love they deserve. Picked off pizzas, stuck between buns as a sad stand-in for a burger, and detested by toddlers the world over, mushrooms could really use a good PR campaign.
Patrick Lemieux wants to be their champion (or, ahem, their champinon). Lemieux thinks that these humble fungi could solve our planet’s deforestation crisis, and he’s designed a machine to help turn our forests into porcini and shitake producing wonderlands.
The idea is this: Forests represent a huge economic resource, especially in developing countries. And many environmentalists agree that landscapes can and should provide profits, although in a sustainable way.
Unfortunately, the easiest and most lucrative way to gain profit from wooded areas is often the most destructive. Clear cutting, turning the land into pasture, and mining are used extensively to reap profits from our planet’s most biologically diverse areas.
If, however, these lands could be used to grow an equally lucrative product—like mushrooms—perhaps they could be saved.
Right now Lemieux and his wife, Isabela Jatczak, grow organic mushrooms on their rural Quebec property. The two are building a cottage industry around their oyster, lion’s mane, and shiitake crop.
At the heart of the couple’s 550-acre operation is a machine Lemieux invented. It mechanically drills 80 holes in a tree trunk and implants dowels that have been inoculated with mushroom spawn. “Right now, mushroom farming is so labor intensive it hardly seems worth it,” says Lemieux. But with Lemieux’s machine, the work is vastly expedited.
The drilling process kills the tree. And maybe that seems like an affront. But most land managers say that selective harvesting—especially in cases of exotics—can keep biodiversity intact while turning a profit from the land.
“I think the concept is admirable and that it should be tracked," says Ross Morgan, a forestry professor at Vermont’s Sterling College and a longtime leader for the Forestry Stewardship Council. "Human beings want to get the highest quality products from the forest." Unfortunately, getting the best lumber often leads to “high grading,” which is essentially taking all the healthy trees and leaving the rest. The invasive and less-than-healthy specimens then thrive in a space where they’d normally not be able to compete. Ross says that he sees it happening far too often. “Forestry was a concept that was brought to the U.S. from Europe 100 to 150 years ago to replace the idea of high grading, but we don’t see enough good forestry happening.”
What Lemieux’s project does is opposite of high grading—taking the worst of the trees and using those for growing his crop. Lemieux also leaves the trees on the forest floor so they can decompose, adding nutrients to the soil. Plus, there’s incentive to keep the forest healthy. Unlike other harvesting methods, which often cut big swaths at a time, mushroom harvesting works best when done in a dispersed way. A healthy, shady forest will deliver better results.
Lemieux says that what he’s doing could be replicated in any part of the world. “The type [of mushrooms] would vary, but this could be done anywhere. Mushrooms grow everywhere.” And demand for organic ones is so high—at least in North America—that Lemieux and his wife can’t grow them fast enough to satisfy their customers.
Currently, a pound of organic shitakes brings between $6 and $12 on the wholesale market. Lemieux says his net before taxes is 63 percent of that. He has buyers lined up to buy his entire crop, which is currently 2,800 pounds a week. And he’s actually able to produce year-round by bringing logs into his 10,000-square-foot indoor growing facility.
The lumber market, meanwhile, has been fairly volatile over the past decade. Lumber is closely tied to the housing industry, so when the real estate market tanks—like it did in 2009—so too does the demand for wood. (Nasdaq has an interesting 10-year graph showing where prices have been in the past decade.) This isn’t to say that the organic mushroom market couldn’t also crash—or that too much supply could weaken prices. But unlike timber, it doesn’t take the better part of three decades to regrow your crop, which is definitely an advantage.
Right now Lemieux has a prototype of his mushroom machine built but he needs $200,000 to take it to the next production phase. He and his wife just ran an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign that aimed to raise cash to expand their own farming operation, the profits from which they’d hoped to put into producing the machine commercially. Lemieux says that he and his wife didn’t understand how much Kickstarter campaigns rely on self-promotion, and that the $732 (CAD) they raised was pretty disheartening. However, they are undeterred and is now looking for individual investors. Morgan hopes they find one.